Cable tensioner at the ground. Wood duck in the background.

 The Hop Growers Journal

Dear Readers,

     Welcome to the diary of the Koester Farms hopyard. The intent of this journal is twofold. First to provide a glimpse of the day to day work, decisions, and thoughts that are part of growing a small family farm hops crop in in the western NY area. Second to allow me to collect data regarding the hopyard as the season progresses throughout the year to use to assess our processes in future years.

I hope you enjoy reading about this project, and perhaps gain some insight into the work behind the flavor.   



Cable tensioner on upper wire canopy. Horse in the background.



tel:        716 474 9126

​address: 3740 School St. Eden, NY 14057

Sunday April 1. Easter Sunday. No work on the farm or elsewhere today. Alleluia! Christ is risen. Springs begins and life is reborn.

Monday April 2, 2018. Dyngus Day. Sunny 40s.  Skipped the Dyngus Day festivities  again this year. So hard to get away this time of year. Maybe next year. Spent the night working on the workshop to get ready for equipment maintenance.

Thursday April 5, 2018. Trimmed old bines in field 2. Nothing more,

Friday April 6, 2018.  Cold and tired tonight, so stayed inside and redesigned website to update our information, pricing, and  additional details about last years crop. I think the addition of the hops oils to the product page adds some information that brewers are looking for, and while this adds costs to our analysis, it is both interesting and useful. To really evaulate the difference that our soil and terroir brings to a variety, it helps to compare and contrast the analysis against the standards. It is also interesting to me to view the difference in the values from one year to the next, so I will keep the information from past harvests posted as well.

Saturday April 7, 2018.   Greg trimmed last years growth in Field 2 Row 5-6 of 8. I was working in the city so not sure what the conditions were like but it looked pretty cold out but no preciptation.  Greg also worked on the small 50 gallon sprayer in anticipation of upcoming herbicide use on field 1 and 2. With plastic removed last year from field 1 last fall, weed control is foremost in our concerns for maintenance this year. We have enjoyed both the luxury of the weed control in the row, but the challenge of feeding and watering correctly.  Pulling the plastic was a big decision, and done with some trepidation, but we needed to move in another direction due to our decreased crop yield last year. We think this was due in part to our inabilty to feed well with the plastic covering. 

Sunday April 8, 2018.  Temp 30, windy, wind chill 20. Lightly snowing sideways. Trimmed last years growth in Field 2 with Greg. who started before me until I got home from work.  Row 6 -7 of 8 completed. Air, ground, plants frozen. Cutting of weeds difficult due to frozen ground. Dressed in many layers with rain gear outer layer.  After dinner, continued redesign of the website, including the first entries into this diary. I need to do a little backtracking to cover our first days of work this spring. I think I can piece together a fair representation up to this date.

Monday April 9, 2018. And more trimming... in the light snow. Staying late until about 8pm now which is hopeful.

Tuesday April 10, 2018. Sunny and cool day in the upper 30s. Pulled the scaffold (14 ft raised platform on a wagon frame- generously built in 2015 by Chris Ferry from his home scrapyard- Thanks Chris) out of the field and filled the ballast barrels. Appears ready to go for another season. Hooked up the 50 gallon sprayer to test. It failed, but appears to be an issue with a valve, that should be easy to fix. Still getting used to the new tractor. Sadly traded in the original 1984 Ford 2910 this winter to obtain a 2014 New Holland T4.75 with cab. Still adjusting to the driving and cab after working with the old tractor without having to really think about what button to push or lever to pull to work. You come very accustomed to a tractor after that many years and miss the familiarity. The New Holland is a joy to drive especially when the cold winds are blowing, which is often here.  In the afternoon, met with the local fertilizer dealer to discuss herbicide use and selection. Learning about herbicides is new to us, since we have not used any yet in the fields. Application of the herbicides and an enhanced feeding program are new skills that we will have to learn so that we don't adversely affect the plants, fields, and ourselves. We have some homework to do in this regard. Ended the day with some more trimming of last years growth. 

                                                          Scaffold- Ferry Original                                            Goodbye Ford 2910                                                     Welcome NH T4.75

Wednesday April 11, 2018. Cloudy and cool but no rain yet. Greg trimmed field 2 plants up to and including the last row. The end is in sight for last years cleanup.

Thursday and Friday April 12/13. Warmer and light rain. 50s.  Additional trimming, almost finished. We will be looking to automate this job asap. We will also not let the weed management get ahead of us (says the guy in April when the weeds have not started to grow yet). 

Saturday April 14. Windy, cold 30s. Freezing rain forcast. Finished trimming on Friday eve and started to do the trellis cleanup with cutting the old strings off the wires. Saturday 8am to about 4 pm cut old string knots in Field 1 and 2. Very cold and windy with an unusually strong east wind. Between the wind and cocunut string flax flying with each cut, my eyes were tearing much of the day . My son Andy drove the tractor while Greg and I cut from the scaffold. The tractor and scaffold fared well with only one small section where the scaffold leaned quite hard while one front wheel floated above the ground. We exited the scaffold platform quickly and will work on that section of ground before we have to tie the new strings. After finishing the string removal, we tightened the ground anchor lines for the perimeter of Field 1. We use a combination of arrowhead anchors and cable tensioners for our outside perimeter to add tension to poles supporting the overhead wire canopy. To tighten the cables, we use a Haven grip tool and block and tackle to pull the slack from the wire and a baseball bat to tap the vise with arm strength to push the wire though the cable tensioner. Overall a good day of work, and the forecast for freezing rain at 2pm held off until just as we finished at 6pm. Much appreciated.

Sunday April 15, 2018. Freezing rain in am 30s, warmed to 50s and just cloudy with no wind by evening. We were able to tighten the wire canopies of both Field 1 and 2 by tightening the ground anchor cables on the perimeter, and did a little work on the 3/16 cables that the coir strings are tied to. We had 4 tensioners where the wire partially pulled back through the tensioner enough that the wire was inside the tensioner housing itself (though they did not completely fail, and lose grip of the wire).  Cables now look in good shape, taught and straight and ready for the strings to be attached. There is a work day planned for April 21 to tie strings. The invite for help with the offer of food and beer has been sent out.

Earlier in the day, we worked inside on the review of our nutrition program in the am while the weather cleared. Nutrition is at the heart of the growers art, especially with a plant species that is an aggressive feeder with multiple stages in a compressed growing season. Variables to consider include soil type, drainage, rainfall, available nutrients, nutrient retention and availability, nutrient uptake and timing based on the plant growth stage. Our experience with hops growing is measured in years (we started our first plants in 2014, and our first scaled up production field in 2015), rather than generations that some of our colleagues in the PNW have.  We do have the benefit of the hop growers associations, Cornell cooperative extensions, the local fertilizer specialists, fellow growers, and of course access to huge amounts of information via the internet. I find I need to focus on specific aspects and develop a plan that can be converted to actual products and dates of application, and then develop a backup plan for when the weather doesn't cooperate. I will publish this plan in a future journal post once it is more fully formed.

We have learned over these past few years that we need to focus on a particular aspect of the business based on what is most pressing (ie: what we did poorly the year before). Last year  (2017) our focus was on drying our crop. We did well with the addition of some dryers and moisture measuring equipment that suit our capacity at this stage. This year's goal is increased production from the planting that we have established. Enhanced nutrition and attentiveness to the plant needs are our focus, with the goal being about 1200 #/acre. Weed and Feed.

Sunday April 27. I know this out of calendar order... Hopyard work has started in earnest. Journal entries have suffered in lieu of the outside work, so let me see if I can recreate the last 12 days of activity from memory and the dry erase calendar board entries....

Monday April 16. Snow. Replaced the roller pump on the 50 gallon sprayer. Apparently that type of PTO roller pump has a short shelf life, since this is my third pump. Attempted to rebuild, but the press needed to separate the shaft from the pump costs much more than a new pump, so replacement seems like the best option and much quicker. We have learned that replacing  a part and getting back up and running is usually more important than the money saved and satisfaction of rebuilding the broken part. Sometimes time saved and staying on schedule is worth more.

Tuesday/Wed April 16-17. Snow. I took off from work to work outside but Mother nature is not on the same schedule.  Farming part time is a scheduling challenge to begin with, but attempting in last November (when vacation time of the non-farming job needs to be submitted)  to guess what will be possible to accomplish in April and May in a location where the climate can range from winter to early summer on a day to day basis is a fool's game. So you pick some days off and deal with the weather as it comes.  There are always two to-do lists, inside and outside. Good weather is a blessing and a gift that can't be wasted. Bad weather can sometimes also be a blessing, as inside maintenance work is required to make the most of the good weather days coming up.  These two evenings were spent on lawn mower maintenance inside while listening to NPR and listening to the snow and wind howl outside the garage. Then,  inside to review the fertilizer plan for this year some more. 

Saturday April 21. Heavy spring snow last two days (4-6 inches), but thawing began last evening. This am is sunny and supposed to warm into the upper 40-50s. This is the string tieing kickoff event. I waffled about canceling the event, not wanting to pull an volunteers out into bad weather. No amount of free food and beer is worth a day spent in a chilling rain and wind. Luckily, the weather turned out quite enjoyable, and we had a good turnout of eager workers. Friends, coworkers and relatives that I believe enjoyed the day outside, the conversation, and learned something about how hops are grown. They picked up the knot quickly ad some even learned how to drive the new tractor.

Thanks for the help to all (Pete, Rich, Valentina, Marilyn, Chris, Dan, Teresa, Jude, and Jack). Jack got called to a local barn/greenhouse fire in mid afternoon in East Eden. We could see the large cloud of black smoke on the next hill over. 

We made good progress in Field 2 strings covering more than half of the field. 

Sunday Aprill 22. Sunny. 50s. Continued with strings in the am on Field 2 . In afternoon, switched gears to apply some pre-emergent herbicide spray to Field 1 where the plastic mulch had been removed.  We hope to deter  the weed seed from germination and break the weed growth cycle to give our hop plants a leg up on the competition for nutrients. We used a foam board and wand sprayer to keep the spray directed away from the hops crowns to avoid any potential for stunting the shoot growth even though this should primarily be working only at the seed and root germination level.

We also attended the first what we hope will be many meetings with other local hop farmers. We discussed the need for sharing ideas, schedules, and equipment, as well as thoughts about the value of pooling product to market more effectively to brewers that may be willing to use local hops on a consistent basis. Thanks go out Carol and Charles from Cole Road Farms for initiating the conversation and getting a good showing of 4  Erie County  southtowns farms to the event at Hamburg Brewing. We look forward to more co-operative events throughout the growing season.

Monday April 23. Sunny 60s. Almost feels like summer even though there are still patches of snow in fields here and there. We were able to put some contact herbicide on Field 2 in the banded area directly adjacent to the plastic mulch in the plant rows. Again, we shielded the plants from overspray, as most plants in this field are up about 1 inch at this point.

Tues-Fri. Rain  40-50s.

Friday April 27.  Sunny and 50s. Continued to hang strings in Field 2 and moved to Field 1 to start those strings until dark.  This afternoon, spent an hour with the local  

fertilizer specialist to review our plan for the nutrition program for this year. We reviewed our soil analysis from last fall's samples for Fields 1-3 and will meet again on  Monday to finalize the plan. I'm excited to see the results and to get started with what I think is our most comprehensive review and strategy for getting the most out of our planting investment. We look forward to some significant increases in our crop health and yields this year.   I feel like we are starting to put some plan and science into our operation that were lacking to this point. Little in the way of specific information is available for hop growers, in part because of the wide variety of climates, soil types, soil chemistries, etc that need to be accounted for at each particular farm site.  Individual site experience is invaluable, which is why journaling such as this and other methods is so important. More to come on the nutrtion plan is it begins to take shape.

Saturday April 28. Rain and 40s.  Hung strings in Field 1 until too cold and wet to continue. Greg's friend Jeremy came to help and was greatly appreciated on a less than ideal day. We got pretty far considering the weather and a few setbacks. We had 2 wires on the 3/16 inch string line wires pull out from the upper tensioners and drop to the ground while putting the ground end in with W clips . We have not seen tensioners fail like this in the past. We noticed this first when tightening the wire canopy early this month with the wires having pulled part way though the tensioner, but thought we had corrected the issue by resetting the cable. Once the wires pulled completely out, we replaced the tensioners with new ones, which seem to be holding. We will need to monitor this as we start to see more weight added to the strings from the plant bines, and perhaps use some preventive measure on the tensioners to hold those cables in place with u-clamps or crimps.

Sunday April 29. Snow again. Light snow flurries accumulated about 1/2 inch and melted away quickly when the skies cleared about noon and the sun came out. Fixed pumphouse plumbing and plumbed in the fertigator.  Will be hooking up the pond pump and getting the filter cleaned and ready over the next couple weeks. No need for irrigation yet, but would like to test the systems to be ready for when we turn from spring to summer.

Continued with strings in Field 1 and fixed some additional failed cable tensioners. Cascade hops fully strung now.

Friday July 20. Sunny, hot. 90s. Work, farming and life leave little time for journals. Its been a long time since we've seen snow and we are starting to plan the harvest. I still am not able to devote any time to the journal today, but I have kept notes and will summarize the season to this point asap.