Ag experts say Va. has potential for hops market

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AFTON, Va. (AP) - Agricultural business experts say Virginia has untapped potential to become a niche market for hops, an essential ingredient in beer making.

Although hops are a high-maintenance, labor-intensive crop, “Our market for hops is growing,” said Stan Driver, founder of Hoot’n Holler Hops.

Driver organized and was among a handful of industry experts to lead the Virginia Hop Growers’ Workshop earlier this month. About 100 people attended the daylong event at the Rockfish Valley Community Center.

“We’ve got people from Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. This really became a regional event,” Driver said.

The event’s key speaker, Jeanine M. Davis of North Carolina State University, is a state extension specialist and a hops and horticulture expert.

“I think there is potential for a Southeastern hops industry,” Davis said. “It’s going to be a niche market, but I think there’s a lot of potential,” she said.

Davis and Driver said Virginia’s position as an emerging market is solidified by the state’s strong and growing craft beer market. Local hops, Driver said, add to the handcrafted narrative that makes local beer appealing to consumers.

Although Virginia hops production is generally supporting local brewers at a niche level, “it provides them local sourcing and a local identity,” Driver said. “They pass that marketing on to their customers, and we can make some unique brews because they’re sourcing local products.”

Justen Dick, and environmental geologist and grower with Kelly Ridge Farms in Meadowview, planted about a half-acre of hops last year.

“It’s probably on the higher end of an entry-level yard. We’re wanting to expand to two or three acres,” Dick said. We’ve actually had three breweries within a 10-mile radius open up in the last year. I’m newer to farming, but that’s something that can be learned. That’s all I’m working on right now.”

Market conditions are favorable, and many people are taking a trial and error approach to hop growing, said Spencer Neale, director of the commodity marketing department at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. Most U.S. hops production originates from the Pacific Northwest.

“Some research data is definitely needed, and it may take a few growing seasons for one to really become adept at growing hops, but it would seem the market conditions are favorable for more hops acreage in Virginia,” Neale said in an email.

At the end of the day, the group adjourned to Blue Mountain Brewery to sample and see the growing of hops come full circle in the beer-making process. Despite the enduring popularity of beer, Davis said hops probably won’t become a mainstream crop for the casual or small-scale farmer.

“Hops are not an easy crop. If you want to grow for the beer industry, and do it easier, grow barley,” Davis said.

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