Hop Harvest. Is it that time of the year already?!

I have just walked in the door and picked up my laptop to begin this article. Perhaps I should have washed my hands first. They are still sticky, resinous and pungent with the smell of the Pacifica and Motueka hop cones I have been rubbing this morning.

We are three days from the start of harvest as I write this, slightly later this year as expected, but the farm is looking very lush and green with all varieties ripening by the day. We will be kicking off with a day of Pacifica followed by a week or so of Motueka. An exciting harvest awaits this year as we harvest two new varieties to our farm. Our Riwaka babies, which struggled early in the season, have bounced back through summer and the bines, though small, are brimming with hops. Then the newest arrival to NZ Hops, Superdelic. Previously NZH-102, the just released hop has shone from start to finish. The cones are smelling extremely fruity already with a few weeks until picking.

Superdelic hop cone
Superdelic ready for harvest. Photo / Josh Lewis

Our Nelson Sauvin looks like some of the best I began here nearly six years ago. I found this out the hard way by getting whipped across the face for a few hours recently while mowing the grass in some of our narrow-rowed blocks. Nelson Sauvin puts out lots of lateral shoots which reach across to the next row, creating quite the obstacle course.

Not long after the December issue came out our summer weed control contingent arrived from a local farmer — one Sunday morning as the sun was barely peaking over the hills we walked 550 sheep the 3km down the main highway and over a hill to the farm. Luckily at 6am on a Sunday there is minimal traffic which means we managed this feat with relative ease.

The sheep provide great fertiliser and weed control on the farm but are here for one main objective, to clear the lower part of the bine before harvest. Our harvester cuts the bines at the lower end of the plant where the sheep have cleared all the lower leaves.  The cut plants are then pulled, and the string which is attached to the wire above snaps and the plants fall into the trailer behind the harvester or “vine puller”.

The plants are dropped off the trailers back at the shed for our hooking crew (yes, the crew are known as hookers) to hook each bine onto the bine chain to go through our picking shed. Having the lower part of the bine clear of leaves helps our crew with picking and hooking onto the chain.

Through summer we move the sheep around the farm to clear the lower part of the plant. We are very lucky to have a great mob which are not easily frightened and follow me easily between blocks just by calling them. They will leave substantially heavier than when they arrived. They sure do love their brief visit.

Sheep on a road
The sheep on their way to the hop farm to do some “weed control”. Photo / Josh Lewis

As we move the sheep around the farm, we are careful with irrigation, as after all, no matter how relaxed they are, sheep are still sheep and can get a bit of a fright from pumps and sprinklers turning on. We have aggressively watered certain blocks before and after the sheep go in. Some of our larger blocks will take the sheep up to 5 days to chew through and that Is a long time for our plants to go without water. High heat and winds mean we have to stay on top of irrigation and make sure all our blocks are maintained well. This is easier to manage with a system electronically controlled via smart phone or laptop. This means we have an accurate and easily accessible irrigation logs and can create schedules accordingly.

Late January brought a week with substantial rain, we were able to turn off our irrigation and let mother nature look after us for a week. This also came at a great time for our pest control. Cooler weather and increased humidity really kicked in and boosted our predator population. Overall, our mite issues were lower than the previous year. As I mentioned, our crop is looking very green and lush. (If you’re looking for a little more information regarding our pest control and what mites and predators are, please see the previous Hoppiness issue.)

All harvest preparation is complete, the picking shed and hop kilns are ready to go. Lots of training for new staff members is complete. We are very lucky again to see the return of our Vanuatuan crew back for their third harvest. I can’t say enough how much easier their experience and great attitude makes things at harvest. We also have a great reliable local crew back again for yet another year. The only thing left to do is get those hops into the shed. As good as the garden looks and as confident as we are for a big crop, we won’t know for sure until we have the hops into bales and weighed. Fingers crossed.

Harvest brings its own challenges but for all the high-pressure moments it is a great time to be out in the garden. The sunrises and sunsets are amazing with such a beautiful backdrop to the farm. Thick fog in the morning breaking into clear blue days. Quite often we get the first snowfall on Mt Arthur near to the end of harvest. That’s when we break out the gloves and beanies for those cold, early morning tractor trips out to the gardens.

For now, a little rest at home for a few days, although when I say rest, I mean wood splitting, lawn mowing and stocking up on protein bars. Normal life takes a bit of a backseat to harvest and will be put on hold for the next few weeks while we tough it out for the long hot days before the reward of a few cold beers to celebrate at the end. Speaking of cold beers, everyone knows what this time of year brings. Fresh hop season, one of my favourite times of the year; waiting to taste the fruits of your labours. Those hop aromas floating through the shed finally find their way into liquid form. Like last year, NZ Hops Ltd will be out to the farm to collect our fresh Nectaron to head straight out to the brewers. I can’t wait!