Traverse City Record-Eagle

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September 18, 2010

Ag Forum: Hop growers need your help

By Rob Sirrine

If you've read about hops in this forum, seen hops growing in northwest Michigan, or enjoyed the aromatic flavors of hops in a refreshing beverage, then we need your help. Last week, as a member of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Research and Extension Initiative collaborative grant, I had the opportunity to travel to Yakima Valley in Washington state to meet with organic hop growers and tour their hop yards and processing facilities.

The grant is a collaborative effort between several universities, Michigan State University Extension and organic hop growers across the U.S. The goal is to identify and develop high-quality hop varieties optimally adapted to low-input and organic production systems. Accompanying me on the tour were Brian and Amy Tennis, of the Michigan Hop Alliance, hosts of one of the two organic hop variety trials in Michigan. The tour and meetings provided an excellent opportunity to learn from researchers, industry representatives and, most importantly, extremely knowledgeable third- and fourth-generation hop producers. From horticultural practices and variety selection to large-scale processing, the Washington growers we visited were forthcoming about their techniques as well as their difficulties.

One of the main difficulties that all U.S. organic hop growers face is that brewers do not have to use organic hops to make organic beer. Yes, it's true. Because organic hops have been in short supply in years past, the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) placed hops on the 606 exemption list. While this decision may have had relevance in the past when organic hops were in limited supply, as both large-scale Washington growers and small-scale Michigan growers have expanded into organic production, the American Organic Hop Growers Association (AOHGA), organic hop growers and many brewers believe there are enough organic hops to meet brewer demand. Not two weeks ago, though, and despite overwhelming support, the USDA NOSB Handling Committee voted 6-0 against a petition to remove hops from the list.

Organic hop producers, like growers of other organic crops, grow organically despite the associated higher costs because they believe in the principle of organic production. But since brewers do not have to use organic hops to make organic beer, there is no incentive for them to purchase hops that are organically produced. To assuage brewers' supply concerns, organic hop growers and brewers should collaborate to set a time in the very near future when all organic beer must use 100 percent organic hops.

So how can you help the fledgling organic hop industry? The Fall 2010 NOSB meeting, where the final decision is likely to be made, is Oct. 25-28 in Madison, Wis. The NOSB will be accepting both written comments until Oct. 12, and in-person comments on Oct. 25 and 27. I encourage anyone who supports Michigan's farmers to consider submitting written comments at the very least. Please contact Meghann Quinn, executive director of the AOHGA for instructions on submitting comments. (E-mail: meghann@usorganichops.com, website: www.usorganichops.com). Thanks for your support.

Dr. J Robert Sirrine is the Leelanau County Agriculture Educator for Michigan State University Extension. He collaborates with colleagues to develop and offer agriculture and natural resource programs in northwest Michigan.

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