Kansas farmers defy odds, make hops into crops

Brianna Childers
The Topeka Capital-Journal
Clyde Sylvester looks over his new crop of hops  last Wednesday at his farm outside of Ottawa. Sylvester has made adjustments to his field to accompany hop farming, including stringing wire lines and lights to create proper growing conditions in an area of the country where hops are typically not grown in.

OTTAWA, Kan. – It is a brisk spring morning in mid-April and Kansas Hop Co.'s farm is a blank canvas.

Clyde Sylvester walks across his property over to the 3 acres of soil where hops seeds are resting beneath. Dozens of wooden utility poles stand tall on the property, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

Hops season is just beginning in Kansas and in a few short months, Sylvester's hops farm will transform into a green, lush scene.

"They grow to this 18-feet length basically in well over a month," Sylvester said. "You can almost watch them grow."

Sylvester, co-owner of Kansas Hop Co., has been farming and harvesting hops since 2016 when it entered into an almost nonexistent market.

Kansas' hops market is limited. Not enough daylight and heavy soil make it difficult to grow quality hops in the state. With only a few hops farms, most breweries look elsewhere for the integral beer ingredient.

Ideal growing conditions have created a booming hops market in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

According to usahops.org, 69% of the country's hops are produced in Oregon with more than 41,000 acres of land being used to grow the crop. That's a large number compared to 4% grown in other states on 2,400 acres of land.

But Kansas farmers in recent years have proven through innovative methods that growing hops in the state can yield the quality breweries are seeking.

Blind Tiger Brewery recently released its first all-Kansas-made beer crafted with hops from Kansas Hop and barley from Kansas Malt Co.

The end product a Kanook variety of hops are vaccum sealed for preservation and kept in a freezer at Clyde Sylvester's farm outside of Ottawa.

Creating a hops market

Kansas Hop in 2016 planted its first half-acre, or three rows, of hops as a way to see if they would grow.

The two big factors into why hops don't grow well in Kansas is less daylight and heavier soil. The Pacific Northwest has two more hours of daylight, lighter soil and a vast water supply.

Kansas Hop curtails those challenges using drip irrigation and lights. Those additions helped the hops company turn a corner last year. The farm has grown from its half-acre to 3 acres, or about 20 rows, of hops.

Growing hops takes a lot of work and training.

Hops, a perennial crop, need to be trimmed back each spring to eliminate any dead growth left behind from the previous year. Coir, or twine, must be hung so the plants can grow vertically.

But hops don't always find the coir and must be trained, Sylvester said.

"We hand-start them basically and have to go clockwise because they follow the sun," Sylvester said. "If you wind them the wrong way, they will fall off."

Hops reach their vegetative growth near the end of June and are ready to harvest in August.

Kansas Hop is growing several varieties, including Cascade, Kanook (or Chinook), Columbus, Comet and Triumph.

Once the hops are taken down, Kansas Hop transfers them to a harvester machine where the hop cones are separated from the coir, leaves and hop bines.

The hops are processed, pelletized and packaged at the farm before being stored in refrigerators where they can remain for up to two years.

"Like everything in this whole process, you have to be really careful," Sylvester said. "We could over-dry them or we could under-dry them and then they don't make good pellets. If we over-dry them, then they lose some of the properties, and that's not good."

What are only small leafs now will soon become large walls of hop flowers at Clyde Sylvester's farm outside of Ottawa.

Not every brewery wants a pelletized hop, Sylvester said. Some breweries will use hops straight off the bine for a beer known as a harvest, or wet hop brew. If it weren't for local hop farmers, Kansas' breweries wouldn't be able to create a harvest hop beer.

"To get (wet hops) from the Pacific Northwest, you have to use them within 24 hours after they are separated," Sylvester said. "You only have a short amount of time."

Fields and Ivy, a brewery in Lawrence, is one of the few that has created a harvest brew using Kansas Hop's product.

Kansas Hop said it is committed to keeping its hops as local as possible. The business works with 30 to 40 breweries, with 90% of those Kansas-based. But getting breweries to buy into the local hops market isn't an easy task.

"We didn't know if we could really produce the quality that people were looking for," Sylvester said. "Obviously, just because we are from Kansas, they aren't going to use our hops if they aren't good."

Darbro Farms started growing hops in a garden

In the small town of Elk City in southeast Kansas, Darbro Farms is helping grow the state's hops market.

The farm, owned by Joel and Holly Darbro, has 3 to 4 acres of hops.

The couple first started growing hops on their property in 2013 in their garden. Once it was clear they could expand the operation, they seeded the hops on their property's vacant land in 2017.

Joel Darbro said there was a learning curve on how to grow the hops.

"With hops, when they start sprouting, you have to learn how to train them and trim them back," Joel Darbro said. "A big thing here since the field we had sat so long without anything in it, the fields tend to go acidic with prairie grass in them."

Darbro Farms, located in Elk City, has been growing hops since 2013.

The Darbros worked closely with a testing company to return the soil to a state that could grow hops.

"Down here in the southeast corner, it's kind of starting into the Ozarks a little bit, so there's a lot of sandstone and sandy soil," Joel Darbro said.

Joel Darbro said his hops farm has worked with three breweries. As the farm produces hops this fall, Darbro Farms hopes to branch out and partner with more breweries.

"The value for local hops would be if you can find a local brewer," Joel Darbro said. "Obviously we can't compete on a scale of the hops from Washington. I think the value is for people who want to buy a farm product that comes from a few miles away."

Barley farmers look to the future

Situated about 25 minutes northeast of Kansas Hop is Great Plains Custom Grain in Wellsville, a 640-acre farm growing corn, wheat and barley.

Co-owner Cory Johnston first bought the property in 2013 and shortly after entered into the farming business with Gary Van Horn.

"We have this cool agricultural heritage and talent, and all of the support organizations in the state to do agriculture, but we weren't doing anything for beer," Johnston said. "We were like, we will start doing it on a small scale and see what we can do.

Barley farmers Cory Johnston, right, and Gary Vanhorn, left, stand in their field Wednesday morning in Ottawa.

The farm grows wheat and barley in part to malt and use it for beer and spirits.

"One of the interesting things we discovered when we started growing our own grain for beer and spirits production is there's really no infrastructure in Kansas for those kinds of crops," Johnston said. "Most co-ops won't clean barley because they certify wheat seed, and the barley will mix with the wheat and then they can't certify the wheat seed."

For a couple of years, the grain company used its own seed cleaner but later found a local business that was willing to clean the barley.

While barley is slightly easier to come by in Kansas, farmers run into difficulty when looking for a place to have it malted.

"There's not a market for it," Johnston said. "What we ended up doing is trucking it down to Texas to get it malted and then trucking it back, which is very uneconomical."

Of the 640 acres of farmland at Great Plains Custom Grain, 22 is used for barley. The company has been growing the grain for about six years but only started producing barley that was malting quality about three years ago.

"This is the most we've planted and our best stand we've had at this point," Van Horn said.

Most of the barley harvested and malted goes directly to Lawrence's Fields and Ivy Brewery, which is owned by Johnston.

"We only so far get enough malted to brew our Kansas lager once a year then a little bit left over to throw in other beers," Johnston said. "The majority of our malt comes from Canada. It would be so expensive if you used all Kansas barley."

The grain company hopes this year is a turning point and that the crop yields enough product it can share with other breweries.

"We will keep what we need for the brewery and what we can get malted," Van Horn said. "Maybe we will keep some excess to sell. We're probably going to have thousands of pounds extra so I might keep it for my farm side as cover crop seed to plant in the fall."

Still, the grain company runs into the issue of having the barley malted outside of Kansas. That is one of the reasons Johnston and Van Horn are considering building a malting facility in Kansas.

The inside of a barley plant is split by Cory Vanhorn to show where the plant is at in its process of growing Wednesday morning.

About four years ago, the business partners received a USDA grant to conduct a feasibility study for a malting facility.

Several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have halted efforts to further the project, but it isn't off the table.

If the grain company is able to one day build a facility in the state, it would open a market for local brewers to have their barley and other grains malted in Kansas.

For now, the grain company will continue to grow its business and produce quality barley and wheat that can be distributed to breweries.

"So far, I think at the end of the day the beers are good," Johnston said, "and we are fulfilling what we thought was our mission."