As I blurrily wander outside in the morning to let my dog Rubi out of her kennel, I feel the crunch of a hard frost under my feet. I shiver a little knowing that in about an hour my fingers and toes will be freezing while I wander up and down rows, cutting the remnants of last year’s crop.

I leave home to a clear sky and drive through frozen farms on my may way to work. About 500 meters away from the farm I am greeted, on what seems like a daily occurrence, by a thick fog. The fog seems to surround our farm while the rest of the valley is clear.  Some days the fog hangs around all morning and some days it clears and we are greeted by the welcome warmth of the morning sun to warm up our fingers from minus 4 degrees!

At this stage of the year we are just about finished cutting the ‘tails’ — what is left of the hop bine from the season before. Just under a meter long it is all that is left from the harvester cutting the crop. We haunch over for two hours every morning with a sickle cutting these away along with the string wrapped inside the brown rotting bine. Removing any string from crop areas keeps the ground clear for any future plantings.

The string historically used to hold up our hop bines was a yellow nylon. Every plant has a V-shaped piece which is tied to wires 5m up in the air, which form part of our hop farm trellis.  For the past few years, we have trialled plant-based string as we aim to be more sustainable and improve our composting capabilities. Our compost is turned several times a year to help it break down. There is some serious heat towards the centre as you can see from the steam in the photo.

diary of a hop farmer
A steaming pile of compost. Photo / Josh Lewis

The nylon string is not biodegradable and a large screen is needed to separate composted plant matter from the string. This year we are making the move to use plant-based string throughout the whole farm. The plant-based string will break down in our compost throughout the year and will eventually be used back on the farm. Removing yellow nylon string improves our environmental impact — an area that has seen big improvements in recent years and something we are always striving to improve. Another improvement to our carbon footprint is changing from coal to wood pellets to run our boiler during harvest. Our boiler heats up water to our radiators. Air is pushed through the radiators which rises to heat our hops in the kiln.

The new string will arrive soon and we have begun preparing the farm to start the stringing process. First all our pins must be prepared and replaced. A steel pin around 400mm long is pushed into the ground leaving a hooked end showing above the ground. The string is then tied to the wire above ground and looped under the pin at ground level forming the V shape I spoke about earlier. This is yet another arduous task — bending over to push these pins into sometimes unforgiving ground. Another tough job on a cold frosty morning.

One thing the frost does help with is to put our hop plants into hibernation. Even once harvest is complete our plants can remain quite green for several weeks after harvest. As many readers will already know, hops are a perennial and will continue to grow back the following spring. I have been asked several times if we must replant every year, lucky for us we do not have to. That would take some serious work. Some of the older areas on the farm have been producing hops for 20+ years.

The weather plays a huge part in growing our sought-after varieties of hops. And oh, how we love talking about the weather. It seems we are never happy with; too hot, too cold, too windy. One thing we find for sure here in summer is that it is becoming increasingly dry and windy. This means our plants require lots of water during summer. Irrigation plays such a huge role on the farm, but during the season underground leaks can be hard to fix. Afterall, we have a huge crop in the way! We use winter as a time to fix up as much of our underground irrigation as possible. From cracked pipes to leaking joins, we have the time and the space now to bring the digger in and get to work.

Winter on a hop farm is labour intensive — back breaking jobs that are not for the faint of heart. I personally enjoy the physical aspect of the job. It is cold, wet and muddy at times, but when you get a clear run of blue sky and sunny days it is a beautiful place to work. Snowcapped peaks all around us make it quite a picturesque place to be. This is why throughout the year hundreds of cars and camper vans stop on at our farm to take pictures. Lots of people stopping to say hello not actually sure what we are even growing but we are always happy to share our story.

Fresh hop season is now behind us but a big shout out to the breweries who put such great beers together. Especially to those who got their hands on our fresh Nectaron™ this year. It was some of our stickiest ever and I can tell you our team had a hard time getting that resin off our harvest equipment!

Looking ahead to the future we have some work to improve the hop trellis and lots of preparation will go into our nearly 17,000 new plants to be planted this year. Stringing will begin and before we know it hop shoots will start to break through. More on this in the next issue.

Josh Lewis is a farmer at Hinetai Hops in Tapawera