Five years ago, hops were in high demand in Michigan, and more and more farmers started experimenting with the crop.
However, as beer tastes changed and breweries went looking for the next new thing, many northern Michigan hop farmers have been unable to make ends meet. This year, more than a dozen hop fields throughout the region sit idle as their owners wait for prices to rise or decide to close farms for good.
One sunny day in late July, one hop field looked especially strong. The plants stretched 20 feet tall. At the top of the lines, they were just about done growing.
Ben Horney, a farmer, admired the view.
“It’s nice to see any hop field looking good, and this one is spectacular this year,” he says.
It was a bittersweet moment. Horney was about to sell his equipment to another farmer — a final step in closing his own hop farm.
“Work-wise, it was the only true passion I’ve had professionally, but there’s other stuff to do,” he says.
Horney once had big dreams for the picking machine. He bought the large picker from France, had it refurbished in Germany, and planned to do the stripping for all the hop farms on Old Mission.
Yet a few years after his big purchase, all five hop farms on Old Mission closed. Horney blames upheaval in the industry and the challenges of selling hops.
“You can only take so many years of going from processor to processor and trying to find someone who can do it efficiently. And so many years of losing your butt,” he says.
Right now, the craft beer market is up 4 to 5 percent. A few years ago it was growing 18 to 20 percent per year.
Brian Tennis bought Horney's picking machine. He owns a 30-acre hop farm in Omena and is a hop broker. His operation, MI Hops Alliance, is doing well — so he’s now focused on efficiency.
“A few thousand pounds a day. But we can definitely run two crews and double that,” he says.
For a northern Michigan hop farm, Tennis’ success is an exception. It helps that he’s a broker and is able to sell his varieties — and hops harvested across the globe — to over 2,000 clients.
He understands how some hop farms struggle, as he’s made mistakes too.
“Farmers unfortunately picked the wrong varieties, and it went out of favor,” he says. “Or there was just so much supply on the marketplace, so it wasn’t profitable to grow."
Tennis grows 15 different varieties now to avoid that, which smaller farms can’t do.
Michigan State University’s extension educator Rob Sirrine says a few years back brewers expected growth in the craft beer market that didn’t happen. So they bought less and transitioned to proprietary hops that don’t grow in Michigan.
In order for the state’s hops industry to stay alive, growers have to become expert salespeople, Sirrine says.
“The marketing and sales component, and really differentiating the hops that they have here to show brewers that they are something unique, is going to be key,” he says.
For the farmers who called it quits, most aren’t sure what they’ll do next. Some have gone back to jobs they’d retired from or switched to a different crop.
When asked if he’ll ever get back into hops, Horney is unequivocal.
“No, I lost too much money,” he says.
He doesn’t want to say how much, but it was a $30,000 loss selling his picking machine alone.
This story was featured in Points North. You can find the whole episode here.