In early August, I ventured to Farmfest in Redwood County, Minn., and toured a hops demonstration area with the Minnesota Hops Growers Association. As a barley farmer’s daughter, I know a little about growing malting barley but had never seen hops or visited with a hops grower.
Hops are the flower that adds the bitter taste and aroma to beer. The popularity of growing hops has grown as the craft beer industry has grown, creating a demand for local hops.
John Brach, of Stillwater, gave me a tour of the hops demonstration area at Farmfest.
Brach shared, “I was one of the first growers in Minnesota. Since then, we’ve expanded. We’ve got about 225 members in our association. About 25 of those are actually growing hops at this time.”
The largest hops grower Brach knows of in Minnesota is growing about 80 acres of hops. Brach grows less than an acre of hops. It’s an intensive crop to raise and, like all farming, a lot of work. But by growing hops in Minnesota, the 25 growers are meeting a unique, local demand.
Next to the hops demonstration area was an industrial hemp growing area. I didn’t tour it but saw many were. At a listening session of Farmfest, I heard U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson say, “I think there’s more interest in hemp than anything I’ve ever seen. … This could be the Jerusalem artichokes of our generation or be careful.”
You’d need a 1980s agriculture history lesson of the Upper Midwest to know Jerusalem artichokes. Agweek’s Mikkel Pates reported and covered the farmer scam of Jerusalem artichokes when it happened and revisited it again last year.
No matter what the new, experimental crop is, farmers should be cautious to avoid scams. I know farmers to be careful and cautious.
With depressed crop prices and ongoing trade wars, experimenting and find new niche crops for farmers is vital. With access to research, farm shows and endless online resources, farmers can carefully assess new crops to test or grow in a field or two on their farms.
New crops and markets will be how some farms survive these next few years.
When I was a kid of the 1980s, I remember oats, durum, spring wheat, corn silage, sunflowers and a little flax. I recently took my daughter to the barley field to ride along with my dad. Next, my dad is combining field peas. Later this fall, it will be soybean and corn harvest. My kids’ farming memories will be different than mine as the farm evolves and changes.
Crop rotations often evolve with new research, varieties, demand, price and the choice is left to the farmers.
And with the choices available, farmers have to look for niches. There were no fields of soybeans that I saw as a kid. Corn was chopped for silage and not grown as a commodity crop. Those were crops for the “I states” of the Corn Belt. Today, all but one North Dakota county, Golden Valley, raised soybeans in 2018.
From experience, I know some farmers will do it the way they’ve always done it. And many survive in good times with that simple strategy, but in downtimes, ingenuity is needed.
Learn about hops, industrial hemp and any other niche crops that may fit for your farm. Ask questions. Read. Listen. Carefully experiment. The future of farming is different, unsettling at times, but bright for those willing to find their niche.