EMPIRE — Cherries, apples and grapes dominate Leelanau County's farming landscape, but a closer look shows another crop is climbing into the market.
The crop is hops.
And while still a niche product compared to cherries, apples, and grapes, many are taking notice of hops' rise in the northern Michigan agricultural scene -- and of the financial perks hops offer savvy farmers.
"Right now, the profit margin is better than it is on cherries," said Brian Tennis, a hops farmer and founding member of the Michigan Hop Alliance. "Right now, you can make more money on a smaller scale."
Flowers from the hop plant are used to flavor and stabilize beer. The plant is a perennial, meaning it comes back year after year. It winds clockwise up a pole from spring until harvest time beginning in the second week of August.
An explosion in the number of craft brewers in Michigan sparked a significant local demand for hops.
"I think it is here to stay," said Dan Wiesen, who co-owns Empire Orchards Hops Farm with his brother, Mike. "How many breweries have opened (in Michigan) this year?"
The Wiesens have decades of experience farming fruit and asparagus. Dan Wiesen began growing hops a few years ago after attending a Michigan State University Extension class. Today, after seeing a sharp spike in demand, Wiesen and his brother are removing dozens of acres of their fruit orchards and installing poles, wire and footings necessary to grow and manage a combined 118 acres of hops off Frederickson Road.
The pair also hired Joe Brulotte, a hops growing expert from Washington state to help supervise installation.
"It's labor intensive and costs a lot of money to get into it," Wiesen said. "We now have 15 full-time employees and we hire all local people."
Tennis and his wife, Amy, farm 30 acres in Omena. Ten acres of the farm are certified organic hops, but more is planned. Tennis and his wife view hops as a viable business model that also has a great fringe benefit: the crop can help smaller farmers survive and even thrive if they can get started.
"We’ve been at it for five years, but the real activity has gone on in the last 12 months," Tennis said. "It's sort of like the old California gold rush thing. Everyone thinks they going to get rich by opening up a brewery or hops farm. They don’t realize how much capital is involved."
It costs $12,000 to $15,000 per acre just to get the necessary infrastructure in place, including plants, poles and footings. That figure does not include other obvious expenses such as tractors and labor.
The biggest challenge to being a hops farmer, though, is in processing. Wiesen said the need for processing has doubled as the farm has grown, which led Wiesen and his brother to construct their own on-site processing facility, no small feat.
The device used to process hops is a massive machine called a Hopfenflueker. The Wiesens purchased their two Hopfenfluekers from Germany.
One of the machines arrived at the farm "in a million parts with no instructions," Wiesen said. "I thought my brother was going to faint."
Tennis said a hops processor is installed at a new local food hub on Barlow Street in Traverse City, noting "it beats pelletizing in a cold barn in Omena."
For the Tennis family, it's all about keeping it local while helping the small farmer make it.
"We just want to get smaller farmers interested in farming and up and running," he said, adding "there will be a saturation point for hops."
Rob Sirrine is a community food systems educator with MSU Extension. He said hops classes offered by the extension are full.
"I get five or six calls a week on it," Sirrine said. "It's catching on more and more as people are seeing they can make money from it. Growers are getting up to $14 a pound and you can get anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 pounds per acre. There is a big up-front cost though of $12- to 15,000-an acre and you are not in full production til the second or third year."