ALGOMA - In the middle of dairy country, Russ Fulwiler had a different beverage on his mind when he went to plant crops.
Dairy farming and related businesses generated $295.8 million of economic activity in Kewaunee County last year, almost 65 percent of the county’s agriculture industry.
Milk may be king in Kewaunee, but Fulwiler saw an opportunity to provide a key ingredient for Wisconsin’s other favorite beverage: beer. Since 2012, he has grown five acres of hops on his Birch Road farm just outside Algoma.
“I didn’t now a quarter of what I needed to know at the time (I started),” Fulwiler said. “It’s a really labor-intensive process. Five acres is a fair size (hop crop) for Wisconsin now.”
Fulwiler might not be in the hop-growing vanguard for craft brewers around the world, but a few dozen farmers like him have returned to a crop that was synonymous with Wisconsin agriculture 150 years ago.
Local food and farm-to-table movements continue to gain popularity in Wisconsin communities.
Fulwiler’s helping extend the idea to beer: The Cascade hops he grows flavors every pint of Heyder Helles and Boat Load IPA poured at Thumb Knuckle Brewing Co., located on Wisconsin 54 west of Luxemburg.
“We knew Russ was down the road before we opened Thumb Knuckle,” co-owner Ed Thiry said. “All the hops we use are growing in Wisconsin. Some varieties of hop can be trick to find, but overall we do OK. It’s really cool when we can keep it local.”
Fulwiler spent three days at Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, a little more than a mile from his farm, Fully Shire Hops N’ Rocks, sharing his experiences with hops and the challenges that come with growing it.
Algoma is hosting this year's Farm Technology Days, which bills itself as the largest agricultural show in Wisconsin. The three-day event concluded Thursday and displays the latest in production agriculture.
Fulwiler said growing hops is very labor-intensive, it can be a sensitive crop that needs training, and interested farmers should go in with their eyes open.
“It’s different than dairy farming, so I’m here to give people the straight story,” Fulwiler said.
Wisconsin Rapids-based Tenacious Badger Hops has hopped into the industry less than two years ago, as well. Vice President of Sales and Marketing Mike Pyburn said owners Drew and Lisa Swendrowski used to grow cranberries, but saw the opportunity to enter a less-crowded market to grow and process hops.
The company uses a low-heat oasting system to retain more essential oils and aromas so the end product is more floral than higher-heat oasting systems.
“Pre-Prohibition, Wisconsin grew one-fifth of the world’s hops, much of it around the Reedsville and Baraboo areas. Now, not so much,” Pyburn said. “We have an entrepreneurial spirit and look for new businesses.”
Pyburn said the hops agriculture industry is very much focused on supporting local growers, processors and brewers. He said Thumb Knukcle, O’so Brewing Co. (Plover), Knuth Brewing (Ripon) and Port Huron Brewing (Wisconsin Dells) are just a few of the local craft breweries that get their hops from Tenacious Badger.
“There’s a lot of local breweries happy being the small guy who want to help out other small guys,” Pyburn said.