Hop growers struggle to take root in Illinois

By Greg Bishop 
Illinois News Network

Illinois hop farmers are trying to contribute to the local craft beer industry with locally grown ingredients but are facing cost and infrastructure challenges that prevent progress.

Grant McCarty, local food systems and small farms extension educator for the University of Illinois and columnist for The Times, said the high startup cost is the main challenge for hop growers, since hops in Illinois can cost between $10,000 and $13,000 per acre.

“The break-even point can sometimes be at 20 acres of hop for some of these growers,” McCarty said. “So if you’re still at 1 to 2 acres, you’re still potentially struggling with the cost and the inputs that go into it.”

Illinois produces only 30 acres of hop annually; by comparison, Michigan produces 650 acres.

These perennial plants produce climbing vines that can reach 20 to 25 feet annually. The plant requires an extensive infrastructure system to support growth, which adds to the startup cost.

“Some growers in the state will utilize old telephone poles, and they’ll have a wire trellising system in which the vine will grow upwards onto the support structure,” McCarty said.

McCarty also said the labor to harvest the hop can be intensive for smaller operations.

“The other hurdle with growing the hop plant is that in most cases – less than 5 acres – you are picking off the vine itself, McCarty said. “You’re hand-picking off of it, and that can be a very big labor expense that a grower has to take into consideration with it.”

Despite the investment and labor, growers are taking on the challenge to produce locally sourced ingredients.

“A lot of hop growers get into growing it because they brew their own beer or they just really like the idea of the microbrewery concept,” McCarty said. “So I think there comes with it a lot of passion for local beer and local brewing.”

McCarty said growers can sometimes have difficulty finding partnerships with breweries to buy their hops, but he’s seen a positive shift toward local growers and local microbrewery partnerships. McCarty is also helping to get small hop growers to work as co-ops to produce hop collectively on a larger scale.

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