Investors "All In" on Iowa Hops

May 22, 2015

While many Iowans will enjoy a cold beer over the Memorial Day holiday, a beer ingredient will be getting all the attention near Solon in eastern Iowa.  The state’s largest hops farm is being planted this weekend and Iowa Public Radio’s Rick Fredericksen has the story.

This Titzenheimer beer was made with Iowa-grown hops, the component that provides aroma and flavor. The recent interest in growing your own has gone commercial, in a big way. Five friends and relatives with a background in traditional crops have invested nearly a half-million dollars into Buck Creek Hops, a one-of-a-kind farm in Johnson County.

Hops flowers on the vine
Credit Buck Creek Hops

“As the micro brew industry has grown 18-23 percent the last four years there’s a shortage of hops.”

Dan Paca owns the land with Mark Pattison; 25 acres of ground is prepped for 25,000 hops plants.

“Mark put a business plan together. We all sat down and we put it together and we tried to be real conservative on the amount we we’ll be producing per plant and per acre, but with the shortage right now the demand is there so there’s a pretty good price so I think we’re getting in at the right time.”

It’s a bazaar panorama; 1,500 wooden posts are spaced out, each one soaring 18 feet high. Heavy wire will be strung between them so the hop vines can be trained to grow skyward and kept off the ground. Solon farmer Doug Black grows corn and beans, and was hired to manage the hops operation. He says his farmer friends are curious.

“You know I don’t know if they think were totally nuts but some of them probably think we are, they’re  very innovative and entrepreneurial, so they’re interested to see how this all looks, right now it looks like cables on poles and that’s it.”

The terrain will change fast; hop vines can grow 20 feet in a season. Emerald curtains will soon be draping the hillsides, and co-owner Dan Paca can’t wait.

Hops fields are surrounded by traditional crops
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

“I grew up in north-central Iowa and they’ve  just recently put some wind farms up there so it kind of reminds me of that landscape, but once the hops start growing it gets real green and lush so it’s going to be a beautiful landscape here.”

Buck Creek isn’t alone in smelling opportunity. The hops shortage is real, according to the publisher of MidwestMicroBrews. But new hop yards are breaking ground daily. Iowa State University even has its first hops consultant, extension specialist Diana Cochran.

“The interest in all the micro brews made people think, well, with the whole buy local food movement, what about buying local hops.”

In spite of high startup costs, Iowa hobby growers are inquiring about going the extra step.

“Right now it’s a tiny crop, but I’m going to say 15 to 20 commercial growers and then I get calls probably at least once twice a week with people wanting more information on growing hops.”

Buck Creek is ready to take orders for its 2015 crop. Hops can sell for upwards of $25 a pound. When the new acreage reaches full potential in a couple years, the harvest could hit 70,000 pounds. They still have some left from last year’s test crop, and marketing director Jamie Bell says they have a plan to raise awareness of Iowa hops.

“In Colorado you know they have pot brownies, hops are a cousin of marijuana, you can’t hand out hops so what are we going to give away at Ragbrai, and we found some people who’ve done it before, hop brownies so were going to do it and were hoping they’ll give it a try.”

Starting tomorrow morning, the final 18,000 starter plants will be dropped into the soil here at Buck Creek farm. There is more than brownies riding on the surge in hops production; there are now more than 400 craft breweries in Iowa and surrounding states. Near Solon, I’m Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News. 

Last year’s test plot is being trained to climb a guide line
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio