Growers are in the thick of hop harvest across the Pacific Northwest, where lower-than-average yields are predicted because of heat waves that scalded the region in June and July.
Across Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the nation’s main hop-growing region, high temperatures brought losses, smaller hop cones and increased spider mite pressure. However, growers say the challenges were mild compared to 2020’s wildfires, windstorms and market disruptions.
“Heat waves, the Delta variant — what’s next?” said Steve Carpenter, chief supply officer for Yakima Chief Hops, a grower-owned dealer handling nearly 40% of the U.S. crop. “At least within our company, though, we’re seeing a good crop coming in and very encouraging numbers in terms of shipments. It encourages me that we’ve maybe come around the corner.”
In June, USDA predicted the Pacific Northwest would string 60,735 acres for harvest, 4% more than the previous year and an all-time record.
Carpenter estimated that because of heat damage, however, the 2021 harvest will actually fall below average. According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, the five-year average is 56,847 harvested acres.
Much of that decrease in strung hops can be attributed to baby hop plants, stunted by heat, never making it to the trellis, according to Ann George, executive director of Hop Growers of America.
Yields in Yakima, Wash., the No. 1 hop producing state, are “down a bit” this year, said Carpenter of Yakima Chief. Moxee fared better, with yields at or above average.
Oregon, industry leaders say, was hurt more. The Citra variety, an aroma hop highly sought after by brewers, was hit worst because it’s not very heat-resilient.
Fred Geschwill, co-owner of F & B Farms and Nursery in Woodburn, Ore., a third generation hop grower with about 300 hop acres, said some of his Citra bocks, especially younger fields, took up to a 60% reduction in yield.
“We were affected pretty heavily on our farm,” said Geschwill.
Because of the heat, Geschwill said, spider mites were “early and really abundant.”
At Sodbuster Farms in Salem, brother-sister team Peter Weathers and Erica Lorentz, who run the farm alongside other family members, said they saw about a 30% Citra loss. Of the farm’s 900 hop acres, about 230 acres are Citra.
Cones are also smaller and lighter, they said.
Like Geschwill, they also faced “really bad” spider mites, and both farms say finding enough laborers this harvest was even harder than in previous years.
Southwest Idaho hop yields will also be below average.
Obendorf Farms owner and manager Brock Obendorf said Sept. 13 that yields on early-maturing varieties have been down 15-20% from average.
He said the unusually dry spring and summer, and high demand from farmers watering crops in dry soil and heat, pressured water supplies. Many irrigation districts planned to end delivery by mid-September, two to three weeks early.
But Obendorf said water supply has been adequate this season, and “most places have wells to get to the hops that will be left” after deliveries end.
Michelle Gooding, chief operating officer at Gooding Farms south of Parma, said there were some water-supply challenges in the growing region. But they were eased by conservative practices and widespread use of less consumptive drip irrigation in hops.
“The problem is that after harvest, we won’t be able to water back,” she said. Growers of perennial hops traditionally use irrigation water available after harvest to “put the crop to bed properly.”
Gooding Farms’ hop harvest is about 65% completed and expected to conclude Sept. 27.
Gooding said yields are down about 20% from the long-term average.
“We’re definitely seeing reduced yield, and the timing of varieties has been much more complicated,” she said.
In Idaho, wildfire smoke shielded hops from the sun to an extent, but it impacted workers and may have held back plant photosynthesis.
As for quality, “even though cone size is down, our color and aroma are still good,” Gooding said.
Bo Isham of Ag Idaho Consulting, Homedale, agreed this year’s hops are “excellent-looking.”
“They are coming in really green,” he said.
Isham said certain fields took the heat harder than others.
John Taberna, soil scientist with southwest Idaho’s Western Laboratories, said many drip systems have a line on one side of the hop bine, on the soil surface. During the roughly 100-degree days and warm nights, “it may be that the roots on the water side couldn’t meet the demand of the entire plant that is 18 feet tall.”
He has been testing sub-surface lines on both sides, designed to get water more quickly to all roots.
Despite challenges, most producers say they’re more optimistic about the market than during 2020, when many breweries were shut down. The beer market, they say, is getting back on its feet.
And it’s a good year to have a smaller harvest, experts say, since COVID market disruptions caused oversupply in stored pellets. USDA reported that stored hop inventory by growers, dealers and brewers Sept. 1 totaled 133 million pounds, up 2% from 2020.