Hippity Hops Farms—What’s Up Hop?

Written by Patrick Loch for hopheadnews.com

Thanks to passionate entrepreneurs like George and Leah Shetka and Paul Pavkovich of Hippity Hops Farms, LLC, Minnesota might be making some noise in the hop farming industry.

(Paul’s son Landon poses at Hippity Hops Farms, LLC, located in Forest Lake, Minnesota.)

The three got started when Paul suggested the idea. “I had four plants and thought, ‘why not go bigger?’” Turns out, it wasn’t terribly difficult to convince the Shetka’s that their front lawn would make a perfect hop-yard.

“We just went in circles mowing the grass there anyways,” said Leah.

In the fall of 2008, George and some other family members got to work situating rows of 20-foot poles strung together with rope. The following spring, 75 Cascade rhizomes went into the ground and began their frenzied climb. That first year, they harvested about 12 pounds of hops, all of which were handpicked.

“We want to emphasize we handpick everything,” said Paul. “That’s one thing we’re not going to stop doing.”

Heads shook when the conversation turned to commercial hop farmers and their harvesters. The machines “jiggle them around, [and] those lupulines fall out,” said Leah. “More lupulines for your buck here.”

(All of the hops grown on Hippity Hops Farms are handpicked to preserve the lupulines contained within the hop flower.)

Last year Leah and George spent 30 hours collecting every cone. After doubling the operation this year and expecting a higher yield from more mature plants, the handpicked harvest (estimated at 100 pounds) should take a bit longer. They plan to make a party of it and have all contributing friends and family come out to grill and pick.

Drying the hops after harvest proves to be another challenge. Last year, they removed every window screen from their home. By laying the screens down flat over sawhorses, the flowers were exposed to circulating air, top and bottom. However, that won’t work this season and the Shetka’s are currently “working on a drying system.”

Top Quality, Organically Grown

Hippity Hops Farms never has and never will use pesticides or herbicides in their hop field. This kind of commitment has Leah low to the ground, tending to the hops every day.

The hops are encircled by a fence to allow their jersey giant chickens and two barnyard mallards, Rouen and Martin, ample space to graze for plant killing bugs. Further, the Shetka’s provide sanctuary for an about five thousand ladybugs, which also munch away on the troublesome aphids. What the ducks can’t reach and the ladybugs miss, Leah washes off gently with nothing but water.

For fertilizer, she uses bone meal, dried blood and potash. The grisly lineup contributes phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium, respectively, to the soil. Between the rows of poles clover is allowed to grow unhindered, which also add nitrogen. Soil samples are frequently taken in order to ensure the right amount of nutrients are made available to the hops.

(The plants grow from the base of the poles, elevated to allow the proper drainage that is necessary for soil that is heavy in clay.)

The plants devour everything—nutrients, sun, water. To get the proper amount hydration and drainage, they’ve raised the ground between the rows a few inches and placed lengths of perforated hose down the line.

To the north, a row of pines protect the field from windy storms. To the south, they took care to allow plenty of southern-sky sun to hit the hops. Despite the northern barrier, each storm finds the Shetka’s eyeing the hops. “The fun of farming,” said George in an email. “One bad storm and all your hard work and any chance of some income is gone.”

The three of them are extremely passionate about what they do—and doing it the right way. “I’m not a tree hugger,” said George. “I’m a hop hugger.”

Growing Market

In 2009, Paul helped negotiate the sale of about 10 pounds of their harvest to Lake Superior Brewing Co. in Duluth. Six ounces went to George’s sons, George and Geoffrey, to produce a very nice beer with professional-tasting hop profile.

While the harvest will be made available to any interested parties, prices are yet to be set(after the global harvest, supply and demand will be established and prices can be set). A deal for this year’s harvest is not yet brokered, but Paul is talking to other local breweries—and working to spark interest in the area’s homebrewers. After trying George and Geoffrey’s brew, I have my mind made up to use whole hops in my next batch.

As much as George hates the idea of pelletizing his own crop—“Those big, beautiful cones. To pelletize them would be sacrilege.”—he’s looking into the purchase of a hop pellitizer for yours. “You send us three pounds [of your homegrown hops], we’ll give you your three pounds back,” he said. Because homebrewers use a smaller amount of hops, the storability of pelletized hops might be a more attractive option.
(Hippity Hops Farms’ hardest worker, Landon Pavkovich, tends to the ladybugs. The Shetka’s harbor thousands of the bugs as a natural pesticide.)

By Paul’s estimates, Hippity Hops Farms is already the largest hop farm in the state. They might be the only ones to go large scale in Minnesota because of a misperception that Minnesota is not a suitable environment for hops to grow. However, the soil is right (more clay here so drainage is important) and the metro area falls within the plants ideal latitude range—between 35 and 55 degrees (Forest Lake is at 45.278).

Next year, they plan to expand even more in order to offer a variety of hops. Saaz and Mt. Hood are the frontrunners, but they want to know what you want. Personally, I’m a sucker for Simcoe…

Hippity Hops Farms wants to thank Dale Kleinschmidt at Lake Superior Brewing Company, Jeannie and Matt Kenevan, Matthew Foster and their attorney Christopher J. Perske (also a homebrewer) for all their help in making Hippity Hops Farms a success.

Visit their Web site, www.hippityhopfarms.wordpress.com for information on ordering hops.