Spring has well and truly sprung out on the hop farm. The longer days are very welcome. The farm is already bathing in sunshine by 8am, which is a welcome relief from that agonising wait for the sun to peak its head over the hill and warm up our fingers and toes. I mentioned in my very first installment that regular minus temperatures would greet us most mornings. But I must say, winter has been quite mild and unfortunately, very wet. We had our wettest July on record and our yard was flooded several times.
Between this and the previous post, our stringing season began. A team of five works together to erect the V-shaped string structure that our hop bines will cling onto through the season. On a good day, the team can string 6000 plants a day. On a high platform above the tractor, two people are up at the top of the hop trellis tying two knots that makeup that V. Fast fingers with lots of blisters. Not for the faint of heart. Something I have tried and failed miserably to achieve myself. Down at ground level, another two people reach up to the person tying the knot with a long pole and pull the string down and loop it under the pin that is poked into the ground. This job, on the other hand, is something I can get on board with. Again, not for the faint of heart. Tying 3000 knots and doing 3000 squats per person make this a very physically demanding job. This was one of my first jobs on the farm and I lost 5kg in the space of two months. If you want to get fit and earn some money next winter, come see us!
The string forms part of our structure that holds the hop bine in place throughout the season. So, what is a bine you ask? I have mentioned the word bine rather than vine before, but I thought I would clear this up. Grapes, used for wine, are an example of a vine. Vines have a vertical stem and use tendrils and runners to reach out and grab a support. The tendrils do all the twisting and gripping. A bine wraps its stem around a supporting structure, in our case, the biodegradable string. Bines have a twisting stem and have stiff hairs to adhere to the string and provide strength as it grows. These stiff hairs are why around this time of year and at harvest time you will generally see our workers with lots of scratches on their arms and legs. If you ever end up working in hops, I would recommend long sleeves!
The string used to hold our plants is attached to what we call our hop trellis —miles of wires and cables along with hundreds of posts that hold up the entire garden. The wires can be a hazard during the season as they all must come down to ground level at the ends of the rows. Throughout winter we have been extending our trellis in areas to make the farm easier to manage for machinery. We have a lot of tractor work on the farm and we aim to make maneuverability as easy as possible. Slowly year by year we are extending the gardens to make life easier for everyone. This does involve a lot of new wires, cables, and posts — and leads to some sore blistered hands by the time you are finished. The way we construct our trellis has improved over the years and now creates a safer, easier-to-use and longer-lasting structure.
Our structure is in place for one main thing. That sweet-smelling little flower we harvest in late summer. Now spring has arrived the excitement begins. Hop shoots have appeared from the ground. Perhaps a little early due to the warm winter we have had. As great as it is to see these little purple asparagus-looking hop shoots, it is a little early. Timing is so important with hops. We want these plants to reach the top of the wire and reach maturity at the perfect time. If our plants grow up the string too early they will grow lots of leaves and create a larger canopy than we want which will block sunlight. This may result in fewer hops growing lower down on the plant and potentially a lower overall yield.
We have set dates that we aim to ‘train’ our hop bines onto the string. With a combination of burn-off sprays and fertilization we can aim to have the hop shoots ready at the perfect time. As always, we cannot control the weather but through years of trial and error our timings are set so the hop plant reaches full maturity at the right time to reap the best rewards.
As we near the end of October our earliest growing variety, Motueka, will be ready for hop training. This is an arduous task, on our hands and knees winding hop bines, which are now around a few feet long, onto the string. We train three bines per string so every plant ends up with six bines racing to the top of the wire. These must be wound clockwise otherwise they will unwind themselves. By the time the hop training season finishes in early December, these Motueka bines will already be at the top of the string.
As you read this we will have even more Nectaron in the ground along with something new, Trial Hop NZH-102. Exciting times ahead leading into the growing season being involved with a variety we have not grown on the farm before. Every year leads to something new to learn and a new way to look at things.
Meanwhile, back at the hop processing shed, the work never stops. Craig, our engineer, built a brand new stringing frame to create a safer and more efficient environment for our stringing team. Work will also continue on the repairs and maintenance of our harvest machinery. This will ensure we get through another harvest smoothly. Behind the shed our compost continues to steam away, working its magic beneath the surface, getting ready to be spread back onto the farm next year.
As I look ahead to December, our garden will be a sea of green plants reaching towards the sun and getting closer to the top of the wire. In the next issue, I will detail some information about looking after our blocks of organic hops along with looking after our growing hop plants and the threat of pests in the garden.