Hops are the primary flavor ingredient in beer, and demand has soared as craft beer has boomed. About 16% of commercial hop fields are on Idaho soil, second-most in the country behind Washington State.
Idaho farmers added another 900 acres of hop fields this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s about 10% more total acres than 2019, but the 2020 harvest was about the same as a year earlier.
Corey Coles is Chief Finance Officer at Obendorf Farms in Wilder. He said a hot end to the summer growing season was a contributing factor to “quite a bit of late-onset spider mite pressure, which drove yields down.”
Spider mites are too small to see with the naked eye, and eat the hop cones from the inside out. They also munch on the leaves of the plant, compromising its ability to photosynthesize for further growth.
The pests impacted Obendorf’s Mosaic crop, Coles said, but other hop varieties were spared. Part of that is luck, but fertilizer and chemical treatments play a role as well.
“Certain fields will be affected by it because you can’t spray every single one of your fields in one night,” he added.
The Labor Day wind storm also impacted hops, knocking down plants workers at Obendorf had to salvage by hand for harvest.
Winds play a different role in hop production, too, drying out the cones which can make them brittle.
Jaki Brophy is with the Hop Growers of America, a trade organization in Washington State. She says late-season wind storms combined with wildfire smoke to create drier-than-usual hops as harvest approached.
“That can create a ‘shatter',” she explained. “There is a much higher amount of loss during the harvest.”
The impact of this year’s wildfire smoke on hop flavor isn’t widely understood yet, but hop producers in Washington state are reportedly testing this year’s crop for damage.
“The bright side of having a reduced yield is that, if it was going to happen, this was a good year to have it because demand has gone down,” Brophy said.
While environmental factors were the primary reason for decreased production yields in 2020, the pandemic also played a role.
Some growers chose to reduce or eliminate management of acres of hop fields this year as the beer industry slowed, a move which also reduced the total harvest.
Coles says farmers are eager to see the beer economy rebound, but the uncertainty presents an opportunity to improve hop production in the long run.
“It’s a good time to clean up some fields a bit, [and] get some virus-free plants in,” he said. That means rotating hop plants into fields with fresher soil, and/or culling the perennial crop of weaker, older and sicker plants. “Varieties are going to become very pure,” Coles predicted.
That kind of action could also reduce next year’s crop production as relocated plants recover, but future crops would be better for it.
About 95% of all commercial hops grown in the United States come from Washington, Idaho and Oregon. The 2020 USDA report shows 9,268 acres of hop fields in Idaho, more than 17.1 million pounds of hops harvested, and a crop value of nearly $100 million.
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