Two months ago, it was nothing more than the “best crop of telephone poles in Flathead County,” as Tom Britz put it. But now, Britz’s field of rhizome is producing bines – not vines – that will eventually produce hops, which in turn will produce beer. The 1-acre crop is a research project, sponsored by the Montana Department of Agriculture and area breweries, to see if hops can be grown on a commercial scale here in Northwest Montana.
“Hops will grow in Northwest Montana, without a doubt,” Britz said earlier this year. “The question is what variety will produce a commercial crop,”
On July 24, the Montana State Department of Agriculture brought its Growth Through Agriculture Council to Britz’s ranch to inspect the future hops crop that was planted in May. While some rhizome, the root that produces hops, have only sprouted a few inches, others are already eight feet tall. Britz said eventually they would peak at 18 feet tall.
The idea to grow hops on Britz’s ranch began with Pat McGlynn of Montana State University’s Flathead County Extension. McGlynn wanted to see if hops could grow on a large scale in this area. To support the effort, the Department of Agriculture put up $11,000 and Great Northern Brewing Company and Tamarack Brewing Company matched it.
Britz says it will take four years for the crop to mature, but some hops could be picked as early as next year. By next summer, the rows of rhizome will become a “wall of green.” If the crop is successful, Britz believes that Montana-grown hops could become a niche product in the area and could boost the economy. After hops are picked, they need to be dried, pelletized and processed. Because Montana does not have such a processing center, one would have to be constructed.
Ron de Yong, director of the Department of Agriculture, said he was impressed with what was sprouting from the earth on Britz’s ranch. In the past, Montana has mostly produced wheat and beef, but now the state’s farmers and ranchers are looking at other products as well. The state has been the country’s No. 1 producer of peas and lentils in the last two years.
“Agriculture is in a major transition and the driver of this change is diversification,” he said. “Tom is doing a first-rate job here. We’re going to get a lot of great research from it.”
Britz said he is still unsure if the hops project will be successful, but he said that is the purpose of research.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s promising. It’s farming, you see what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “Had I known what I know now when we started, I would have done some things differently, but that’s why they call it research.”
It’s also been a tremendous amount of work, Britz said, estimating it takes 550 hours of work to produce just one acre of hops annually. An acre will produce bines and hops that collectively weigh 20,000 pounds. Brtiz said the biggest challenge has been weeding the rows of plants and keeping it supplied with sun and water.
“It’s been like building an airplane, flying at 350 miles per hour and being shot at,” Britz said of the last two months maintaining the crop.
Even though the plants haven’t reached sky-high levels, McGlynn said they’re making good progress building a deep root system that will hopefully survive the winter.
“I know they seem so small, but it’s really good,” she said.
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