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NMSU hops variety trial expanded to include higher elevations

FARMINGTON, N.M. - New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington is partnering with Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., for the second phase of its study of hops as an alternative crop for the Four Corners region.

Two people looking at a plant
NMSU student interns Aiessa Wages and Jason Thomas look at a hops plant being raised at NMSU's Agricultural Science Center at Farmington. NMSU is partnering with Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., to determine which varieties will grow in the Four Corners region and higher altitude of southwest Colorado. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

The researchers, Kevin Lombard at NMSU and Beth LaShell at FLC, are raising at least nine different varieties of hops to determine yields, hop cone chemistry, and marketability at the different elevations of the region.

Funding for the replicated study is through U.S. Department of Agriculture specialty crops block grants administered by each state's department of agriculture.

"Fort Lewis' fields are at an elevation of 7,600 feet, while we are nearly 6,000 feet," said Lombard, NMSU faculty at the Farmington science center. "So this is an elevation gradient type of test."

Lombard began studying 16 varieties of hops as a potential specialty crop in 2008 when an international shortage of hops caused pelletized hops prices to rise 10-fold. The hops volatility led Four Corners brewers and growers to view hops as an opportunity to diversify farming operations and they asked the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Farmington to determine the feasibility of producing locally grown hops. Markets have since stabilized.

"Commercial craft brewing in northwest New Mexico and southwest Colorado continues to see growth," Lombard said. "The region supports eight commercial brewers and brew pubs. So there is a potential local market for the crop."

After the plants developed, the first harvest was held in 2011. Cascade variety was the highest yield, followed by Crystal and Newport. Nugget, Horizon and Galena varieties all had modest yields. It was determined that hops varieties from Europe, such as Hallertauer, Fuggle and Saaz, showed poor growth in the areas' high pH soils and dry conditions.

"In 2011, Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington blended the Cascade, Crystal and Newport hops from our field trial to produce 201 gallons of Aggie Ale," said Lombard. "The seasonal beer was named in honor of the NMSU Aggies and quickly sold out." The current study is evaluating four varieties from the original study and five new varieties.

"This study is using certified virus-free materials grown from tissue culture. The plantlets came from Summit lab at Fort Collins, Colo.," Lombard said. "In the original study we used rhizomes, but there has been some concerns about rhizomes potentially having an infestation of apple mosaic virus. Some of the hops industry is converting over to tissue cultured plantlets that are certified virus-free to avoid spreading unwanted viruses by propagating rhizomes that are infested."

Just back from a hops farm tour in the Yakima, Wash., region, the memory of that trip is fresh on Lombard's mind.

"While we might be able to grow hops here, potential growers need to be aware of how local, regional, national, and international hop markets operate," he said. "Potential growers should put our project in perspective when comparing Pacific Northwest regions such as Yakima where the vast majority of the domestic crop is produced in valleys with hop 'ranches' as far as the eye can see, multiple generational experience and unrivaled post-harvest infrastructure.

"As with any crop, raising hops requires knowledge of market potential before planting and a long-term commitment. Speculators expecting to 'get rich' have more to lose than gain."

The second phase of NMSU's hops study is to inform potential growers of the risks involved in raising the crop before they venture into production. To accomplish that, NMSU is offering a symposium in Farmington July 12-13.

"We hope people who are thinking about growing hops or thinking of commercially brewing with fresh, non-pellet hops will attend," Lombard said. "The emphasis will be placed on commercial, small-scale farm production and marketing, with discussion of the pros and cons of growing and marketing hops."

Presentation and discussion will include brewers' realities, such as equipment needs and market demands for non-pelletized hops; lessons learned in producing and marketing hops in New Mexico and Colorado; and an economic forecast of hops in New Mexico and Colorado.

Todd Bates, an independent plant researcher in Embudo, N.M., who raises New Mexico native hops, will speak on his research and the niche market within the state.

"Todd has worked with New Mexico native plants for years," Lombard said. "Abbey Brewing Company, LLC has also created Monks' Tripel Reserve out of native New Mexico hops.

"We will also have a webinar session with Heather Darby at the University of Vermont who has been working with the New England Hops Alliance," Lombard said. "They are a few years ahead of us in producing hops for New England markets and she will talk about the market and production experiences the alliance has encountered."

Ron Godin of Colorado State University Cooperative Extension will also speak. He has been working with hops in Colorado for years and brings in a wealth of knowledge on the subject from a regional perspective. Other speakers will come from local brewery scenes at Three Rivers Brewery, Ska Brewing Co., the largest brewer on the western slopes of Colorado, and Abbey Brewing Company, LLC.

The symposium will be held Friday, July 12, at the Three Rivers Brewery banquet hall in Farmington, 107 E. Main Street. Saturday, July 13, the group will travel to NMSU-ASC Farmington to view the variety trial.

The $40 registration fee will include lunch on Friday. Participants must be 21 to attend. A half-day field tour of the experimental trial will occur at the NMSU-ASC Farmington. Attendees need to be able to drive to that location, which is about a 20-mile roundtrip from Farmington.

For more information on speakers, lodging options, and map of Farmington, visit: http://farmingtonsc.nmsu.edu/documents/hops-flier3-july2013rev3.pdf To register, contact Lombard at 505-960-7757 by July 11.