Steve Tomlinson is the man behind A Guy With A Shovel Hop Yard (AGWASHY for short). Located in Penticton’s West Bench neighbourhood which is known for its orchards and more recently, vineyards, Steve’s hop yard takes up the back third of his 1 acre property,and with just over 300 plants it is a fairly solid backyard operation.
He came up with the idea a few years ago when he and his wife, Rita, were looking to use their space for growing a cash crop. Steve says he’s not entirely sure what drew him towards growing hops, he started reading about it and grew a test row before taking the plunge. Some of his hops are now 5 years old, making him to my knowledge one of the first people in the area to look at growing hops beyond personal use.
Hop Flowers, also known as Burrs
His hops are sourced from Left Field Farm in Sorrento, the hop yard associated with Crannóg brewing. Most of the hops from there are certified organic, which he was thinking of doing, however, once he took a look at the specifications required for certification, he quickly realized that it would be too much work, too much money and also likely result in a lower harvest.
This being said, there isn’t too much chemical intervention happening in his yard either. He hasn’t sprayed so far this year, he has used a granular fertilizer but otherwise the hops are doing their own thing. For pests he’s noticed this year that the aphids aren’t too bad, and the lady bugs seem to be taking care of any that are around. Grass and weeds grow between his rows, but a simple mow takes care of most of it, and the hops are established enough that they have overtaken any weeds growing in the rows.
Looking through a row at AGAWASHY towards one of the most valuable tools – the Orchard Ladder
Steve’s approach to setting up his hop yard is very DIY. He was able to source cedar poles for a couple hundred hundred dollars for the lot, and brought them down from Enderby on a friend’s flat deck ATV trailer. He brought in a machine for a day to augure and erect the poles, then he set up the trellis himself. Conventional trellises sit at about 20’ high, but he chose to set his at 15’ as it was as tall as he felt comfortable reaching up to from his orchard ladder!
The hop yard blends nicely into the rest of the Tomlinsons gardens, with berry bushes, vegetable beds and grape vines rounding out the other crops. While they will both spend some time over the summer maintaining their other gardens, after the twine is strung and the bines are trained there isn’t a lot of work to do with the hops until harvest time.
Some early cones were discovered ripening on the Cascade Bines
In years past harvest time meant having family and friends come over to hand pick the vines, which is quite a bit of work. Last year he built a harvesting machine with a trailer axle with picking arms which was described by an onlooker as “bashing the cones off the bines” and then used a treadmill as a sorting machine. It worked, but it wasn’t ideal, so he’s still working on a harvesting option for this upcoming season. The dryer is like a modified dehydrator, also a DIY project. One dry the hops are vacuum sealed, which helps compress them, and then frozen.
I asked Steve if he would recommend becoming a backyard hop farmer to someone else having learned via trial and error over the past few years. He felt that for a homebrewer perhaps having 6 different varieties using a maypole style trellis wouldn’t take up too much space and with at least 1lb per plant would provide ample hops for the brewing season. For a commercial endeavor he felt that marketing was a challenge. He has had interest in the past from some local breweries, but when it came time to sell the harvest people who had been keen earlier were not returning his calls.
Part of the issue is when Steve first set up the hop yard he figured people would appreciate a variety of choices, so he planted Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Fuggle, Nugget, Newport, Galena, Willamette, Mount Hood, Golding and Zeus. With most breweries requiring an alpha acid test at $60.00 per variety, it would have killed his profit to test all 10 varieties. He took aim instead at the home brewing market, as they are usually not quite as discerning as the commercial breweries. This hasn’t been quite as successful as he had hoped, although I have brewed using his hops, and found that they were quite good, it was just a bit of guesswork adjusting my recipe to accommodate whole hops.
To gain more interest in sales, he removed all of his varieties this year aside from the Cascade, Chinook and Centennial. This way he can do the alpha acid testing without wiping out his profit margin. He is hoping he can find a local brewer to take them this year, otherwise he will again be looking at the home brewing market. He did keep one of each of the original varieties, which will wind up in the home brewing projects of Steve and his friends. As far as the hops that he took out, they were able to find homes for both at Hops Canada and then with another local grower.
Steve actually planted his hopyard before he got into home brewing, which he started as a way to use up some of the hops and experiment with the different varieties. Now using the very cool Grainfather system he is able to keep his kegerator running at full capacity, using all of his own hops. I quite enjoyed sampling the pale bitter, dark bitter and dark rye IPA he had on tap, and was impressed at the collection of hops he has in his freezer. He let me know he needs to make space for this year’s harvest, so if I know of any interested homebrewers to spread the word!
A look at the trellis system – the bines are still developing this year due to the replanting, and will be much more developed over the next 2 growing seasons.
Steve has also started the BC Hop Growers group on Facebook as a way of connecting other small scale hop growers in the region with each other and to share advice and information on hop growing techniques. He’s learned quite a bit since he started 5 years ago, and is very happy to share this information with other aspiring hop farmers!