By Gary Jones
Back to basics with alternative crops
By Gary Jones
December 2016 – The Fraser Valley used to be one of the major hop growing centres of the world. Records indicate the first hops were grown in 1892 (albeit in Saanich on Vancouver Island), before production moved to the Valley.
By the 1940s nearly 2000 acres were under cultivation around Chilliwack, employing up to 4000 people1. It was a huge industry.
Likewise, at one time the Valley was filled with daffodils. Even now, the centre median of Highway 1 Trans-Canada has patches that explode into yellow each spring.
But as with many crops, changes in local conditions and global production factors saw the demise of Fraser Valley hop production, until the last great hop farm closed in 19971.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the local hops industry is seeing a significant revival. The latest news segment of this on the CBC this week estimated there are now about 300 acres, up from practically nothing just a couple of years ago. There are also the birth pangs of a local hop growers association, surely a sign that positive change is afoot.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
So what? Well, for anyone interested in exploring new, alternative crops, there are lessons here for the learning.
Firstly, and one would think this is a no-brainer, the growth has been in response to consumer demand. This demand of course has come from the explosion of craft breweries we’re seeing practically everywhere. These new brewers in turn are responding to demand from their consumers for unique, different, local fresh beers with distinct flavours and other characteristics. The point is that there is already a thriving market for the product with a significant under supply. While there is always going to be room for the cutting-edge entrepreneur to bring a completely new product to the market, that route may not be for the faint-hearted.
Secondly, there is a pool of existing knowledge of the crop and successful production techniques. This saves time getting up and running, and reduces risk for the producer. As a bonus, in the interim hiatus of production here, newer techniques have been developed elsewhere to make systems more efficient or productive.
Thirdly, there is opportunity to differentiate your product from that of other producers. Included would be conventional, organic, variety selection, packaging options (fresh versus vacuum packed), and so on. I guess this is only easy because there is such a large, growing market waiting to be filled.
Fourthly, there is interest in the industry from those not directly involved as producers or customers. For example, given the factors above, banks are readily willing to support new businesses with investment as they may see relative security of their lending. Again, this makes it easier for newcomers to get off to a good start.
TREAD CAREFULLY ON NEW PATHS
There are always less positive aspects. An old boss of mine once told me “growers should never chase a good crop” – meaning it’s unwise to move into a different crop just because it gave other growers a good year last year. Those who have been growing for a while already know this of course, but newcomers may be seduced by the romance of being a grower! So while the industry is expanding rapidly now, there will come a point when supply will catch up with demand. Being a perennial crop, hops take about four years to come into full production. This requires particular attention and forward planning of industry production area. Which is where an industry association is good help!
OK, so none of this is rocket science or particularly earth-shattering. But sometimes it’s good to take another look at the basics, lest we make things too complicated and miss the point.
1 Hop Yard Collective, Technical Memorandum 1: “The Current Market for BC Grown Hops Part 1 of 4.” Prepared for: Persephone Brewing Company August 15, 2014.
Gary Jones is co-chair of horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and welcomes comments at Gary.Jones@kpu.ca.